ELTRIA, Barcelona, May 2024

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In a few days I will be presenting at the ELT Research in Action Conference in the amazing city of Barcelona!!!

Here is the program

My talk, entitled “AuthenticAIty: Where do we go from here?” is the opening plenary. Richard Sampson and I will also be doing a workshop later in the conference schedule about Intuition and Practitioner Research (see our Special Issue of the JPLL for more on this subject).

Shortly after the talk, my slides will be available to view at the following address


BAAL 2023: Broadening the Horizons of Applied Linguistics

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  • 56th Annual Conference
  • Wednesday 23rd August – Friday 25th August 2023,
  • The University of York

Teaching as Research: A Case in Practice

Whilst a great deal of research within the teaching research nexus is done on or with teachers, clearly some of the most emic insights into classrooms come in the form of practitioner research. The need to present research as something polished and finished that meets the requirements of academic journals can lead to a ‘distancing effect’ (Ushioda, 2021), and may create a divide between the two activities where the nexus meets. Furthermore, there is a tendency for published research to further distance itself from reality by presenting only the sanitized and ‘ideal’ version of the process and findings (Rose & McKinley, 2017).

In this presentation, I reflect upon my own journey to becoming a practitioning researcher by discussing one of the projects I have undertaken which was every bit as much part of my teaching as it was part of my research. I will discuss how conducting this research helped me broaden my horizons and develop as a practitioner. I will discuss the types of data and evidence that I collected in order to question any assumptions about my practice, thus allowing me to arrive at more solid and evidence-based conclusions  (Walsh & Mann, 2015).

During this short talk, I will explain what I do in my classes and how I make my research a part of my teaching practice by employing an approach that utilises elements of autoethnography, exploratory practice and evidence-based reflective practice. I will mainly describe some of the methods I employ in day-to-day classes and how data is generated as a natural by-product of the type of teaching I do. I will also comment briefly on why I feel this is also an ethical approach and why it can benefit my students and my own practice as both a teacher and a researcher.

Rose, H., & McKinley, J. (2017). The realities of doing research in applied linguistics. In J. McKinley & H. Rose (Eds.), Doing research in applied linguistics: Realities, dilemmas and solutions (pp. 3-14). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Ushioda, E. (2021). Doing Complexity Research in the Language Classroom: A Commentary. In R. J. Sampson & R. S. Pinner (Eds.), Complexity perspectives on researching language learner and teacher psychology. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Walsh, S., & Mann, S. (2015). Doing reflective practice: a data-led way forward. ELT Journal, 69(4), 351-362. doi:10.1093/elt/ccv018

Memes and EFL Learners

Meme made by a Japanese EFL learner
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I attended JALT CALL 2023 in the beautiful city of Kumamoto, and gave a presentation entitled “Me and My Memes: EFL students’ memes and their role in participatory culture.”


Memes are the “lingua franca” of the internet (Milner, 2016), and there is a small but growing body of research using memes with EFL learners (Harshavardhan et al, 2019). In this talk, I share some of my own practical experiences using memes in Japanese university classes. Students find and share memes, as well as creating and sharing their own. The values and potential pitfalls of this are discussed practically, and some preliminary data about students’ reflections and experiences of using memes are presented to begin a discussion on the potential place that memes might have in the EFL classroom. Initial response show that students found making their own memes to be a rewarding experience that gave them a connection to participatory culture (Jenkins et al, 2009).

Harshavardhan, V., Wilson, D., & Kumar, M. V. (2019). Humour discourse in internet memes: An aid in ESL classrooms. Asia Pacific Media Educator, 29(1), 41-53.

Milner, R. M. (2016). The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Weigel, M., Clinton, K., & Robison, A. J. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Presentation to be given on June 4th at 10:00-30 at Kumamoto-Jo Hall, Room A3 (Front).

Cratylus and maintaining a complex sense of cinnamon: A reply to Pallotti (2021)

Reading Time: 16 minutes


Complexity perspectives have been proposed as a way of underpinning more nuanced, contextualized understandings for second language research and pedagogy. Notwithstanding, persistent voices maintain critical flaws in such an application. This article provides a response to such naysaying previously published in Second Language Research by Gabriele Pallotti. I address important questions raised about the language of complexity, ideas of reduction and representation, and aims of generalization and prediction for research. I clarify aspects of the criticisms made, whilst concurrently recognizing challenges evident in current applications of complexity. In essence, I admit that the language of complexity is at times abused, while contending there are clear reasons why we need reminding of the dynamic, contextualized and unique nature of much that we study; I assert that complexity does not rule out reduction and representation completely; and I contest that generalization and prediction should not be a gold standard for which to aim. Based in my primary role as a classroom teacher and practitioner researcher, I argue that complexity reminds us to adopt a focus on more contextualized understandings and maintain our recognition of the humanity of language, language use, and the people involved.


complexity, epistemology, representation, generalization, prediction


Ever since Larsen-Freeman’s (1997) seminal publication, complexity perspectives have been lapping at the edges of the pool of accumulated Second Language Development (SLD) understandings. That contribution promoted consideration of languages, their use and learning, and the people involved in these endeavors as complex systems dynamically interacting in a nonlinear fashion. Efforts at removing elements from time or their interconnected contexts were adjudged nonsensical. Thus, Larsen-Freeman (1997: 142) expressed the “hope that learning about the dynamics of complex nonlinear systems will discourage reductionist explanations in matters of concern to second language acquisition researchers”. Ecological approaches (e.g., Kramsch, 2002; Kramsch & Steffensen, 2008; van Lier, 2004) and elements of the transdisciplinary framework for SLD proposed by The Douglas Fir Group (2016) equally have aspects in common with complexity thinking. Indeed, the years subsequent to Larsen-Freeman’s (1997) entreaty have seen numerous complexity-inspired publications, such as theoretical and methodological books (e.g., Hiver & Al-Hoorie, 2020; King, 2016; Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008; Sampson & Pinner, 2021; Verspoor et al., 2011), empirical monographs in second language (L2) education (e.g., Kostoulas, 2018; Pinner, 2019; Sampson, 2016a), research articles dealing with a variety of areas within SLD (e.g., De Bot et al., 2007; Henry, 2016; Hiver & Al-Hoorie, 2016; Mercer, 2011; Sampson, 2016b; van Geert, 2008) and attempts to describe how complexity perspectives might inform language teaching (e.g., Mercer, 2013; Pinner & Sampson, 2021).

Nevertheless, there remain strongly dissenting voices, with Pallotti’s (2021: 11) article raising a number of points that mean, in his view, complexity “risks becoming a flag under which to fight not very productive academic crusades”. This article aims to add to this discussion by both clarifying aspects of certain of the claims made in such naysaying, whilst concurrently recognizing some current challenges to complexity research and theorizing. Given my own role as a practitioner researcher (rather than an academic or theoretician), the stance that I proffer draws parallels between complexity thinking and a more humanistic consideration of (the people involved in) SLD. In contrast to objections raised by influential voices (Ellis, 2021) that complexity offers little of practical use for an applied field like SLD, my viewpoint thus in fact stems from my practical experiences in language classrooms.

On the language of complexity

In his thought-provoking piece, Pallotti (2021) draws parallels between complexity perspectives and an Athenian philosopher, Cratylus. According to Pallotti’s reading, Cratylus interpreted Heraclitean philosophy (that ‘everything flows’) to such an extreme degree that he felt it impossible to speak, for “words themselves ‘freeze’ reality and offer a static, reductionist representation of it” (Pallotti, 2021: 2). Pallotti makes the case that complexity perspectives equally allow us to say or do very little of practical use. One example of this claim is his assertion that complexity displays “Cratylism in theoretical statements” (Pallotti, 2021: 4). By this, he means that much of the writing about complexity is rather loquacious whilst at the same time being content-impoverished. In his view, “affirming that everything is dynamic and complex is an example of a metaphysical statement that cannot be falsified and with a surprise value close to zero”, while “it is equally obvious that all entities are different” (Pallotti, 2021: 4).

Perhaps it may be the fault of writers founding their research on complexity principles for not sufficiently rehashing past research landscapes. It seems the point they (we) wish to make is that much empirical work has been turning a blind eye to such aspects for decades. Take one area close to my heart: Drawing on their vast experience, MacIntyre et al. (2021: 22) reflect that “quantitative research projects in the psychology of language learning are most often done with a cross-sectional design…using a pre-determined set of instruments…while collecting data in as large a sample as possible”. However, as van Dijk et al. (2011: 62) point out:

…if we really want to know how an individual (or group) develops over time we need data that is dense (i.e. collected at many regular measurement points), longitudinal (i.e. collected over a longer period of time), and individual (i.e. for one person at a time and not averaged out).

Surely, SLD should concern itself with such development over time? As Pallotti contends, many of the properties of complexity do indeed seem “obvious”. Yet, given that many past efforts to study something as dynamic, complex, and individualized as processes of language development have ignored such qualities, writers may feel it necessary to reiterate.

            All this said, I must admit there are pitfalls intrinsic to the language of complexity. These challenges relate to the problem of how complexity has been ‘packaged’ or ‘branded’ through articles, books and conferences. It seems we may have expended so much time and so many words trying to show complexity has something novel to offer SLD that occasionally we lose sight of the wood for the trees. Complexity thinking is a philosophical viewpoint that reminds us of certain ways of thinking about the world (Morin, 2008). Indeed, Larsen-Freeman (2017) refers to it as a metatheory; it extends epistemological, ontological and axiological guidance. Put another way, it furnishes a “conceptual framework that provides broad theoretical and methodological principles for how to judge what is meaningful (or not), acceptable (or not), and central (or not) in the task of building knowledge about a phenomenon” (Ortega & Han, 2017: 2-3). Lamentably, writing underpinned by complexity perspectives can tend to obfuscate possibilities for illuminating insights with an excess of technical terms such as “emergence”, “self-organization”, “nonlinearity” or “openness” – even while the concepts themselves might be quite familiar to most involved in SLD. Another frequent flaw is a mistaken belief that in order to align oneself with complexity thinking, everything needs to be described as a ‘system’. The following quote supplies a fitting example: “It must be noted that while…the L2 developmental system is closed rather than open, individual learners should strive to keep their systems as open as possible” (Han, Bao, & Wiita, 2017: 227 – emphasis added). I imagine that if I urged the young adults in my classrooms to “keep their systems as open as possible”, I would be met with widespread puzzlement. Alas, I also am not free from blame here. For instance, as I described the behaviors of a learner in one of my previous publications: “His attempts at action in the current system met with success, positively reinforcing that this kind of action would be appropriate in this system” (Sampson, 2016a: 128 – emphasis added). Clearly, I was talking about a group of which this student was a member, yet my insistence on using the word “system” in an attempt to maintain a complex focus was misguided and unnecessarily opaque. In response to Pallotti’s (2021) concerns about the language of complexity, then, perhaps we ought to strive to leave the jargon at the doorstep and instead show via our research interpretations and representations what complexity can add to the SLD landscape.

On reduction and representation

Regarding the conduct of research, Pallotti (2021) vigorously defends quantitative research methods and the utility of reduction. As he opines:

The fact that the average, or a regression line, do not correspond to any particular data point is not a limit of these relatively simple models, nor an issue to wonder about; rather, these models help us to solve concrete problems, like that of making sense of a number of sparse observations. (Pallotti, 2021: 5)

Morin (2008) contends that we have been socialized in a mechanistic view in which we believe that we can remove any part from the machine to understand its function and workings or view the parts as fundamentally similar and average across them. Aligning himself with a complexity perspective, he thus argues that our thinking is founded on “the principle of simplicity [which] either separates that which is linked (disjunction), or unifies that which is diverse (reduction)” (Morin, 2008: 39). Admittedly, averages (reduction) have their uses. Reflecting once more on the study of language learning psychology, large-scale research that relied on averages etched out the empirical interest in language anxiety (Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope, 1986). This focus then afforded teachers more general understandings of the potential causes and impact of such an emotion (see MacIntyre, 2017, for an overview). The reduction here also, however, meant that for years research fixated on this one area, without taking note of the brilliant diversity of emotionality in language learning (see Pavlenko, 2013, for criticism). Nevertheless, (Pallotti, 2021: 3) goes to great lengths spelling out the benefits of reduction, as in the following:

In many cases reducing complexity and dynamism may have positive effects. Suppose you arrive in a city you have never visited before. Getting off the train, who would you prefer to meet: someone offering you a lecture on the infinite complexity of this city, its being a system made up of billions of particles in continuous motion, interacting with one other [sic], and whose behavior can never be predicted exactly, or someone handing you a very simple map? In other words, the map is not the territory, but a reduction of it, and this is not a weakness of the map, but one of its strengths and design features.

That is, one of the consistent threads running through Pallotti’s (2021) article is an insistence that complexity thinking discards reduction in toto, that it disavows any kind of (reduced) representation. In this regard, there is a body of literature devoted to questions of presentation and representation given complexity understandings (e.g., Cilliers, 1998; Davis & Sumara, 2006; Osberg et al., 2008). In refutation of Pallotti’s arguments, Osberg et al. (2008: 208) contest complexity “does not imply that we should attempt to do without representations, but that we need to rethink the status and the purpose of our representations”. Complexity reminds us that the act of representation is always an act of reduction. Whilst trying our best to “include context as part of the system(s) under investigation” and “honor the complexity by…avoid[ing] premature idealization” (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008: 241-242), we work to arrive at representations that are adequate for what we are trying to understand. Complexity also reminds us to be humble about what we are claiming: “Our understanding of complex phenomena is never perfect” and thus representations ought to be understood as “valuable but provisional and temporary tools by means of which we constantly re-negotiate our understanding of and being in the world” (Osberg et al., 2008: 208 – emphasis in original).

It might further be contended that arguments of the benefits of reduction analogized by a map are flawed in many respects. In the first case, a map is based on geographical and spatial features which are themselves unique to a particular location; for instance, we cannot extrapolate from a map to all towns with a castle or all roads leading thereto. Equally, and recollecting Pallotti’s (2021: 5) assertion that averages help us to “make sense of a number of sparse observations”, the specific information from a local that recently there is an especially mean-looking crocodile inhabiting one of the roads of an evening might prove quite vital (but not be included on a representation such as a map, and certainly not in a generalized version). That is, sometimes (often), we need to care about particular data points in their interactions with context and within time (and surely all the more so when considering humans and their languages).

One of the key tenets of complexity thinking is that phenomena (such as meaning) emerge via the interaction of parts. Taking the parts out of the richness of their context tells us little, as does averaging across the parts. It is the parts interacting in certain ways, with certain qualities, at certain times that gives rise to a particular phenomenon. Equally, the whole adapts the parts (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008) and things change – different interactions of the parts as well as different qualities of the parts will give rise to different emergent phenomena.

The key point is that contextualized understandings are vital. As Simpson and Rose (2021: 138) remark, “if a biologist were aiming to understand how a certain type of plant grew simply by observing the plant, but failed to consider either the growing medium, or nutrients, they would be neglecting a significant element of what fosters plant growth”. Complexity does not mean that averages and “relatively simple models” (Pallotti, 2021: 5) must be thrown out the window, but it does remind us to be (more) aware of the importance of the interconnectedness of the phenomena we are studying. Additionally, as SLD considers people and their languages, complexity prompts us to remain cognizant of the unique human experiences involved in languages and their acquisition. Even work underpinned by complexity foundations can move to the abstract, attempting to develop mathematical expressions reducing complex systems to fundamental principles (see, e.g., Lowie, 2017, for discussion). Yet, such moves work to “decomplexify” (Morin, 2007: 10) and dehumanize the phenomenon under investigation. In our own field, Ushioda (2021: 274) asserts that

such discussions of human behaviour can create, as Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008: 74) openly admit, something of a “distancing” effect, where individual intentionality, reflexivity and decision-making become transmuted into mathematical models representing abstract systems above the level of the individual person. In a sense, it is as if the abstract self-organizing system has a theoretical life of its own, and we lose sight of the people themselves and their lived experiences and local realities.

While we cannot possibly include everything, we need to find appropriate levels of reduction and representation that do justice to the human experience of language. At a recent discussion of conducting SLD research underpinned by complexity thinking, one participant described such an endeavor thus: We start with a sauce in which a multitude of ingredients with their distinctive flavors are apparent, and we simmer the sauce down to just the right taste. Not enough, and we may be overwhelmed by the competing flavors and unable to make sense of the sauce; but too much, and we may lose all sense of cinnamon (Simpson, March 6, 2021 personal communication).

On generalization and prediction

As we have just seen, adhering to complexity thinking, understandings of phenomena are considered interpretive and exploratory, rather than explanatory or predictive (Alhadeff-Jones, 2013). One of Pallotti’s (2021: 5) vital criticisms of SLD taken from a complexity perspective is that such a descriptive nature means researchers refrain from making strong (generalizable) claims, “saying without saying too much”. As he continues:

In many areas of science that CDST calls ‘traditional’, description is seen as a first step followed by generalization and prediction. …It sounds rather odd that an approach aimed at expanding applied linguistics’ resources and methodologies can be ‘content’ to do less than what is done in ‘more traditional’ research. (Pallotti, 2021: 6-7)

A key voice in SLD theorizing for years, Ellis (2021: 200) concurs:

I have my doubts about this theory, not least because it offers no predictions about L2 acquisition and resists generalization. …if [SLD] is an applied discipline, then surely there is a need for generalizations that can inform applications. What does Complex Dynamic Systems Theory have to say to teachers, for example? Telling teachers that language learning is complex, idiosyncratic and unpredictable might be helpful in developing their awareness of the nature of L2 learning but it does not offer any practical suggestions about how to the [sic] design and implement language instruction.

As Larsen-Freeman (2015) admits, some (simplistic, linear) phenomena are represented with a Gaussian distribution as a bell curve (and hence can be generalized and predicted to a certain extent). Yet, complex, nonlinear phenomena may also have non-Gaussian distributions, meaning that “infrequent behaviour at the edge of a bell curve is much more common” and thus “computing the average behaviour does not tell us much about the behaviour of the components or agents” (Larsen-Freeman, 2015: 17). Such nonlinearity implies that “the really relevant elements – the triggers of large-scale change for instance – can be exceptional, deviant and statistically insignificant” (Blommaert, 2014: 16). In such a sense, while in SLD “stages of development…are commonly observed as a grand sweep effect at the group level, these stages may be meaningless at the level of the individual learner” (Lowie & Verspoor, 2015: 63). Is, as Pallotti (2021: 7) would urge, acknowledging such processes “do[ing] less”?

Pallotti (2021: 5) nevertheless asserts that “admonitions on the risks and difficulties of predicting and generalizing don’t offer a particularly relevant contribution, as everybody is aware of these difficulties”. Why then do many who add to the empirical (and theoretical) landscape persist as if unaware of such risks and difficulties and instead make prediction a gold standard? Is it reasonable to continue making simplistic generalizations and predictions if we recognize complexity? Should we not appreciate the unique humanity of the people involved in language learning and use? To what degree do abstract generalizations built around simplistic assumptions truly “offer any practical suggestions” (Ellis, 2021: 200) for teachers in classrooms with particular language learners with their particular complexity?

In terms of my own area of study – practitioner research into the psychologies and sociality of the people in my classrooms – complexity encourages us to look (really look!) at phenomena of interest in specific contexts in time, describe, and try to understand what is going on in their emergence. And, if I understand my particular context more deeply, I may be enabled to make more intelligently-informed decisions about how I might foster conditions more useful for learning. In this sense, complexity does not preclude acting for the future, it merely (?) suggests we think about tendencies for action in particular contexts with particular people, whilst recognizing that with everything going on we are never going to be able to make hard-and-fast predictions for all contexts or all people. While I might not be able to make widespread generalizations or predictions to populations, I can generalize to theoretical propositions and potentials (Larsen-Freeman, 2017). As Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008: 236) conclude:

This is not to say that the findings in one context in one study cannot be relevant to another, but saying they are relevant is not claiming some cause will produce the same effect. Rather, it is saying that what generalizes from one context to another is the need to look at dynamic interactions and the possibility of connected emergent outcomes. In other words, what generalizes are the mechanisms and dynamics of complex systems.


Pallotti’s (2021) timely position piece has raised various concerns about the usefulness of complexity-informed research and theorizing going forward. While his main criticisms revolve around questions of language, reduction and representation, and generalization and prediction in complexity perspectives, I hope to have clarified some (mis)understandings in these points. Notwithstanding, I do agree with one of his conclusions, that “[complexity] research is now at a crossroads” (Pallotti, 2021: 10). We need to take great care that the sometimes opaque vocabulary of complexity and creation of ever more abstract representations do not take center stage, distracting us from maintaining a practical purpose to our research and keeping our focus on real people and the languages they employ. In this respect, from my perspective as a classroom practitioner who deals in complexity day in and day out, I hold high hopes for the usefulness of complexity in furnishing more nuanced, humanistic understandings of second language development. And while, as I hope to have made clear, prediction is not something we should (or can) aim for given complexity, I do see that complexity might add much to understandings of underlying processes involved in learning and using languages. Hence, rather than expecting the construction of complexity-driven theories of language, use, and learning, we might better anticipate complexity-informed understandings and approaches (Mahmoodzadeh, March 17, 2021, personal communication).


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Blommaert, J. (2014) ‘From mobility to complexity in sociolinguistic theory and method’, Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 103.

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Henry, A. (2016) ‘Conceptualizing teacher identity as a complex dynamic system: The inner dynamics of transformations during a practicum’, Journal of Teacher Education, 67(4), pp. 291–305.

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Pavlenko, A. (2013) ‘The affective turn in SLA: From “affective factors” to “language desire” and “commodification of affect”’, in Gabrys-Barker, D. and Bielska, J. (eds) The affective dimension in second language acquisition. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, pp. 3–28.

Pinner, R. S. (2019) Authenticity and teacher-student motivational synergy: A narrative of language teaching. London, UK: Routledge.

Pinner, R. S. and Sampson, R. J. (2021) ‘Humanizing TESOL research through the lens of complexity thinking’, TESOL Quarterly, 55(2), pp. 633–642. doi: 10.1002/tesq.604.

Sampson, R. J. (2016a) Complexity in classroom foreign language learning motivation: A practitioner perspective from Japan. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Sampson, R. J. (2016b) ‘EFL teacher motivation in-situ: Co-adaptive processes, openness and relational motivation over interacting timescales’, Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 6(2), pp. 293–318. doi: 10.14746/ssllt.2016.6.2.6.

Sampson, R. J. and Pinner, R. S. (eds) (2021) Complexity perspectives on researching language learner and teacher psychology. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Simpson, K. and Rose, H. (2021) ‘Complexity as a valid approach in “messy” classroom contexts: Promoting more “ecologically rich” research on the psychology of L2 listening’, in Sampson, R. J. and Pinner, R. S. (eds) Complexity perspectives on researching language learner and teacher psychology. Bristol, U.K.: Multilingual Matters, pp. 136–151.

Ushioda, E. (2021) ‘Doing complexity research in the language classroom: A commentary’, in Sampson, R. J. and Pinner, R. S. (eds) Complexity perspectives on researching language learner and teacher psychology. Bristol, U.K.: Multilingual Matters, pp. 269–283.

Verspoor, M. H., De Bot, K. and Lowie, W. (2011) ‘A dynamic approach to second language development: Methods and techniques’. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

AILA2021 World Congress Symposium – Practitioner Research & Classroom Dynamics

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Emic Insights Through a Small Lens


Hello and thank you for coming to the symposium at AILA2021 about Practitioner Research. If you didn’t pay the (astronomical) fees for the conference, don’t worry – our symposium will be available after the event for free to everyone. We can also continue the discussion here, or on a social network of your choice (as long as it’s Twitter).

The dulcet tones of my favourite Aussie, Richard Sampson, will be a delight to all as our Featured Speaker. His video about Complexity, L2 Learner Psychology, and Practitioner Research even features his own musical composition as BGM!

Digital Handout


This symposium brings together teachers engaged in research, who can offer valuable insights into their own practices and provide a more nuanced and contextually specific cross-section into their classrooms utilising various methods suited to practitioner-research.

Ushioda’s ‘small lens’ approach to researching classroom phenomena was originally intended to focus on motivation with a ‘more sharply focused or contextualised angle of inquiry’ (2016: 566). This can be achieved by utilising various established and emerging practitioner-based research methodologies which utilise a methodical and evidence-based design in order to gain emic insights into the language learning classroom. In this symposium, researchers will utilise a small lens approach to examine a range of psychological and social factors relating to classroom dynamics focusing on both learners and teachers, such as emotions, identity, motivation, autonomy, values and beliefs.

Research done by practitioning teachers is strongly advocated in the literature on complexity paradigm approaches, both within education (Davis and Sumara, 2008) and SLA (Larson-Freeman and Cameron, 2008). As the field of applied linguistics is reshaped by a tendency toward more situated and complexity-informed ways of understanding, insights from practitioner research are also gaining traction. The complex social dynamics that emerge inside specific classrooms are still rare and under-reported within applied linguistics, and this symposium aims to provide a springboard to learn from more emic perspectives from inside language learning classrooms.

Humanising Language Research Through the Complexity Lens (Webinar)

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In this Webinar, Ema Ushioda, Richard Sampson and Richard Pinner discuss the issues surrounding Complexity Theory and conducting research on language learning and teaching. In this 90-minute Webinar, Ema Ushioda, Richard Sampson and Richard Pinner discuss how complexity perspectives to language learning can be researched with a focus on making sense of complex and unpredictable phenomena. We discuss how the Complexity Lens can act as a useful tool for teachers and researchers to ensure that we focus on the actual people in the language classroom and the relationships that take place in real learning contexts. This event was kindly supported by Multilingual Matters and the TEFLology Podcast.

Is it all about the now? Authenticity and Currency

Reading Time: 7 minutes

How do time and authenticity interact

It has been a long time since I wrote about authenticity… or at least it feels like it anyway. In truth I have a few chapters which aren’t even published yet which discuss this favourite theme of mine, but because I was on sabbatical last year (if you can call it that) and because I basically didn’t really do much work last year except here and there, it feels like many moons have passed since I mused and reflected on the concept of authenticity from the perspective of language teaching.

Yesterday I was out walking my beloved dog, Pippin, and listening to some Nirvana. There was a line in the song that said “That’s old news” and this got me to thinking. Old news is an interesting expression, it’s something of an oxymoron. News, by definition, has to be new. So old news can’t really be news. I instantly started thinking about the lessons I teach which incorporate elements from the news or current affairs. Now that I’m back to teaching after a year off, it’s interesting how much I realised I enjoy thinking about my classes and planning materials for them.

The first big change in the news to have happened since I was last in the classroom in the academic year of 2019 is obviously the timely end of Trump’s presidency. Nobody was more relieved than me to be rid of this toxic, bloated, deranged orange billionaire. But, there is now a Trump shaped hole in many of my lessons. I used to teach a class on the discourse of racism, in which we take Teun van Dijk’s ( 2008) work on disclaimers and denial in the discourse of racism, and utilise some of the principles to analyse articles and speeches.

In the class, the example I have been doing for the past four years was Trump’s famous presidential announcement speech, June 16, 2015, in which he spouted vitriolic nonsense about Mexicans being “rapists”. I am including the handout I use as well for anyone interested.

Currency as an attribute of authenticity

I am going to talk about this lesson in terms of authenticity and currency. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, currency is one of Feda Mishan’s 3Cs of Authenticity (along with culture, and challenge (2005: 44–64)) from her brilliant book Designing authenticity into language learning materials. I have always found the concept of currency to be particularly helpful when I think about materials and authenticity. Basically, currency refers to the temporal dimension to authenticity, which she particularly elaborates with respect to the changing nature of language use, although she does also associate it with topical issues and current affairs. In my own writings I have already slightly developed on this idea, when I wrote;

“If I do a lesson about John Lennon in December, it would have more currency than doing the lesson in, for example May, because I could use the opportunity to mark the anniversary of his death. I could also ask students to talk about their own favourite musicians, and the dangers and stresses that fame brings. Currency not only refers to the ‘up-to-date-ness’ of the materials but also their topicality and relevance.”

(Pinner, 2016: 79)

With the departure of Trump, I thought this might be a good time to discuss “old news” and currency in relation to authenticity. I think this lesson is perhaps one of the best I had in terms of helping the students understand and apply Van Dijk’s framework for identifying racist discourse. It was always fun to teach, and the students enjoyed putting Trump under the microscope and coming to the unwavering conclusion that Trump was indeed being racist in his speech. The lesson had a video, it had an academic text behind it, and most of all it had currency.

This year, I can probably still get away with using this lesson, but what about next year? And the year after? Clearly, with Trump no longer current (as in serving as president and regularly featuring in news and media) this lesson is going to start aging quickly. In other words, I need to find a new, more contemporary racist figure to analyse.

But, currency is not simply a matter of updating your handouts now and then. This could quickly become exhausting. Whilst I am very happy with the idea of The Living Textbook (meaning we are always updating the materials we wrote for class), it would be nice to be able to create materials which can be used for more than a few years.

Materials and “Old News”

When a teacher creates a lesson based around a newspaper article, they do so knowing that they will very likely only be able to use those materials once, or at best a handful of times. Why? Because the news will soon lose its currency, and thus an aspect of its intrinsic authenticity will also be lost. Students are not going to get excited by a random newspaper article that you had lying around for years. They need “New News” in order to connect with the topic, find relevance in it in the world, validify and authenticate it. This is a shame, as I am sure anyone who has made a lesson plan from a newspaper knows that it can be quite time-consuming. I’ve always found that using newspaper articles in my classes was a good way of getting students involved in something going on in the world and brining it into our class. And, of course, newspapers are part and parcel of the “classic” definition of authenticity. Please note, I am NOT saying newspapers are authentic in and of themselves. They are not. But, I think we can all agree that it’s a bit of a shame to design classes around a news story and not to be able to get some kind of mileage out of it.

However, let’s consider a slightly different perspective. What if the newspaper article was from August 6, 1945?

Despite being over 70 years old, this article retains its currency simply because of the historical importance of the event.

Another example might be a paper from September 11th, 2001.

Such articles will likely always retain their authentic currency, simply because these stories are not news but history.

Does this mean I can keep using my Donald Trump lesson then? Can I say that this was a historical speech?

The issue is a little more complex than that. I think Trump’s presidency is very likely going to be remembered in history (hopefully for the right reasons). However, I personally might feel that Trump was old news still rather than being history, simply because we need more time to pass before we can gauge how history responds to the event, how people reflect on it, and importantly how much people care about it! This is especially true in terms of the demographic I teach. I need to consider how 20-year-old Japanese university students feel about Trump and whether they still care, now or in a few years’ time. My feeling is that for my students, they wouldn’t be very interested in analysing Trump anymore now that he’s no longer president.

This is why currency is such an interesting concept, and does not simply equate with how recent something is. I would argue that, keeping with the US president theme, Abraham Lincoln has more currency than, say, George W. Bush. I feel that students would appreciate a lesson on JFK more than they would on The Donald, and this is because of currency. Lincoln and JFK belong to history, whereas Bush and Trump are simply in the past.

Currency Vs History

The problem with this conceptualisation of authentic currency is that it might discourage teachers and materials writers from using stories from recent current affairs because of the way they will age quickly. We are already very aware of how international textbooks are constantly needing to be updated. Photos of students in the 90s just won’t cut it for a coursebook anymore. Photos, typography and graphic styles are all easy identifiers of the age of a textbook, and publishers are certainly under the impression that their customers will not want to spend good money on an ancient textbook. Opening a textbook and seeing a photo of someone using a chunky laptop or sitting in front of one of the big CRT monitors instead of a flatscreen is likely to inspire a snort of derision, not a good starting point when the teacher is trying to get their students to invest in the content. Not only do styles and fashions change but also so does language. The fact that materials need updating is as inevitable as the fact that languages themselves are constantly evolving and updating.

So, should materials writers simply avoid anything from current affairs? Should textbooks be filled with articles on the moon landing and speeches by Martin Luther King Jr.? (I chose both those examples as they are widely used in textbooks). I think it would be a shame if we let currency slide in favour of history, but it’s true that something historical will retain its currency for longer than something which is merely ‘news’. The balance is in the sweet spot somewhere in-between. There are new news articles all the time, but certain topics retain their currency and recur in the news regularly. Issues about gender equality, racial discrimination, the environment, social justice. Critical topics such as these will always have currency and it will not be hard to find news stories to link to these issues.

I have also experienced a kind of “noticing” effect when teaching about certain topics, much as Richard Schmidt started noticing new vocabulary items everywhere once he had learned it. When I am talking about a certain topic with one of my classes, it’s never long before a newspaper article with direct relevance to that topic jumps out at me. Recently it was the resignation of Olympics Committee President Mori for making sexist remarks, which fits very nicely in with my class on feminism and gender issues. The lesson is there already, but this provides an up-to-date reference point. I might show a slide of Mori in the class, but it’s easy to change and update.

Unfortunately, the Trump lesson isn’t going to be so easy to update. That lesson has lost its authentic currency I fear, so I will need to redesign it. But as I’m doing so, I will bear in mind these reflections on currency and try to get something which has a good mileage. Any suggestions would be much appreciated!


Mishan, F. (2005). Designing authenticity into language learning materials. Bristol: Intellect Books.

Pinner, R. S. (2016). Reconceptualising authenticity for English as a global language. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Schmidt, R. W. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11(2), 129-158.

Van Dijk, T. A. (2008). Discourse and power. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

WEBINAR: Humanising Language Research Through the Complexity Lens

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6th March 2021
10 AM to 1130 UTC
Find your time zone


Ema Ushioda
Richard J. Sampson
Richard S. Pinner

In this 90-minute Webinar, participants will be able to join in a discussion about how complexity perspectives to language learning can be researched with a focus on making sense of complex and unpredictable phenomena. We are planning to include a lot of audience participation so we will be fielding and answering questions. We will also encourage audience members to ‘take the mic’ and share their own experiences too.

We will discuss how the Complexity Lens can act as a useful tool for teachers and researchers to ensure that we focus on the actual people in the language classroom and the relationships that take place in real learning contexts.

To attend the event please sign up at the link below: https://forms.gle/amqbkK9eGDks29Cy5

We will email a Zoom Meeting link a few days before the event.

This event is kindly supported by Multilingual Matters and the TEFLology Podcast.

Recommended Reading

Pinner, R.S. and Sampson, R.J. (2021), Humanizing TESOL Research Through the Lens of Complexity Thinking. TESOL J. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesq.604

Sampson, R. J., & Pinner, R. S. (Eds.). (2021). Complexity Perspectives on Researching Language Learner and Teacher Psychology. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. <https://www.multilingual-matters.com/page/detail/Complexity-Perspectives-on-Researching-Language-Learner-and-Teacher-Psychology/?k=9781788923545>

Virtual Laboratory: Authenticity and Metacognition

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Recently I was invited to contribute to the Virtual Laboratory on Cognitive Approaches to L2 Instruction by the Universities of Heidelberg and Kent. It’s always nice to be given an invitation, and of course I accepted. Here is the video of the lecture, and my slides are also available for download too (with embedded audio).

Here is the abstract for the talk.

Dr. Richard PINNER
Sophia University (Japan)

Authenticity and Metacognition in L2 Learning

A talk for the Virtual Laboratory on Cognitive Approaches to L2 Instruction: Bridging theory, Researches and Practice

Slavisches Institut, Universitaet Heidelberg

AUGUST 8, 2020

(Central European Time, ex. Berlin, Paris, Roma)




In this video lecture, I will discuss the issue of authenticity in L2 learning and teaching. I will outline the way authenticity is (somewhat paradoxically) simultaneously over-simplified and overly complicated. In order to explain the definitional problems and conceptual paradoxes of authenticity, I will present the authenticity continuum, which is a visual attempt to understand authenticity as it relates to language learning from both a social and contextual perspective. Authenticity is an important aspect of self-in-society when learning another language, and I will discuss the way that metacognition and metacognitive strategies are an essential aspect in the creation of a culture of authenticity within the language classroom.

You can access the slides from here

If you would like to ask any questions or continue the discussion, you can either do so here on this site, using the YouTube comments or you can talk to me through Twitter @uniliterate.

Hope you enjoy the talk and I look forward to hearing from you!